Seasoned Minnesota mediator finds joy in finding the common ground
ST. PAUL -- On the surface, the PolyMet mining hearings that took place over the winter in northern Minnesota and St. Paul presented a clash of immovable ideas -- the revitalization of a dormant mill promising generations of good jobs versus the ...
ST. PAUL - On the surface, the PolyMet mining hearings that took place over the winter in northern Minnesota and St. Paul presented a clash of immovable ideas - the revitalization of a dormant mill promising generations of good jobs versus the possibility of hundreds of years of water pollution.
But digging below, one could find many subtleties - gray areas on which both sides could agree, or disagree. The challenge for the moment was not to find a resolution that either would advance or doom the project, it was finding a way for all the voices to be heard.
And that was the job of Aimee Gourlay, director of the Mediation Center that long has been associated with Hamline University law school in St. Paul.
“In that particular job for me, a lot of the facilitation was how do you design the process. That’s harder than running the process,” Gourlay said in a recent interview. “It’s about creating a process that’s transparent, that allows people to have meaningful participation. I hate the term ‘somebody feels heard’; I want them to actually be heard. And to understand that what they say might have the potential to influence the process.”
At issue was a 2,200-page Environmental Impact Study, released this winter, on PolyMet Mining Corp.’s proposed 20-year plan to mine and process copper and nickel near Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes.
Supporters tout the prospect of up to 360 permanent jobs and more than 600 related jobs. Opponents contend the company underestimates regular water seepage from the operation, along with the potential for breaks, cracks and other accidents that could lead to a 500-year environmental cleanup problem for Lake Superior and nearby waterways.
What was said at the hearings eventually will be incorporated into a final assessment of the proposed project, which will influence whether the whole thing goes forward and in what form.
For Gourlay, the process was part of the resolution - the journey, in a way, part of the destination.
“I don’t even think of it as a debate,” she said. “I know it’s easy to present it as two sides; I don’t think it’s two sides. I think there are multiple sides and people agree on some points and disagree on some points, have data that supports one thing versus another, depending on how you interpret it, so I think it’s much more complex. I see a lot of complexity in these systems.
“People interpret risk differently based on their value base ... and there’s really serious consequences, whether it goes forward or not forward for the multiple interests involved.”
And the location of the hearings changed their tenor, she said.
“When we were up in Aurora or Duluth, these were neighbors (in the audience), she said. “So while it has statewide impact, the statewide impact and comments were different than for the people who live there, and see their children leaving because there’s no jobs, or won’t drink the water because they’re concerned about the quality, so it goes either way. And they’re in the same community together.”
In St. Paul, many people addressed issues beyond the Environmental Impact Study.
“The last meeting (in St. Paul), with 2,100 people, was hard because there were so many people, and there were people who were not directly commenting on the EIS, which was the purpose, so it made it harder to have enough time to have that sense that there was participation,” she said